Criminal Record? (Part 1)
First they were sampling off other peoples' records, now they're selling records to sample off. Tim Goodyer listens while Simon Harris, Pascal Gabriel, Norman Cook, Ed Stratton and Coldcut put the case for sampling CDs.
When people first sampled other peoples' music to use as their own it caused trouble. Now people are sampling other peoples' music and selling for other people to use as their own. Simon Harris, Norman Cook, Pascal Gabriel, Ed Stratton and Matt Black comment on the new movement.
There's a lot of money being made out of sample CDs at the moment. The popularity of sampling and the convenience of the CD medium - not to mention the falling cost of digital technology - have conspired to make sample CDs irresistible to the many musicians currently using samples. That the phenomenon is a recent one can be attributed to the fact that, until just a few years ago, the cost of both samplers and CD players ensured that they were exclusive status symbols.
Broadly speaking, these sample CDs fall into one of two categories: they either contain samples of other instruments (acoustic or electronic) carefully recorded and prepared to allow you to build up multisamples and keymaps so that your sampler can take over another instrument's role, or they contain pieces of other peoples' music - breakbeats and other assorted musical or vocal samples. The fatal attraction of a CD full of samples is that they take much of the hard work out of sampling - they relieve you of the laborious (and sometimes expensive) tasks of recording "real" instruments into your sampler, or searching out excerpts of (often obscure) records suitable for building a fresh piece of music upon. All that remains is to load up your sampler and get on with the business of making your music.
Just as samplers brought breakbeats from the DJ's turntable into the realm of recording studio hi-tech, CDs are now challenging good old-fashioned vinyl as the source of beats and breaks. It may come as a surprise then, to learn that sample CDs have a precedent in the form of vinyl sample LPs. Unlike the current wave of sample CDs, however, these albums were primarily aimed at DJs for use in nightclubs as well as in the creation of their own records and remixes. As such they contained breakbeats which had been looped to run uninterrupted for around three minutes - a feature retained on certain CDs but replaced on others by one- or two-bar samples designed to be looped in a sampler by the user. The evolution of sample LP to sample CD neatly serves to further highlight the convergence of interests of musicians and DJs.
"Ed Stratton: The rules I use are: that samples should be short, that they should be describable as sound effects or non-melodic samples."
One of the longest-running series of sample albums is that created by British DJ, producer, remixer and some-time recording artist Simon Harris, though it was not the first. Notorious amongst those which predate Harris' albums are two American series' - Drum Drop and Ultimate Breaks & Beats - now some 25 volumes old. A Belgian release called High Fashion, the work of DJ/remixer Ben Liebrand, appeared around 1983. Harris' Beats Breaks & Scratches was inspired by Liebrand's album and has recently found itself transcending the club DJ/sampling musician distinction through its release on CD - all eight volumes. It joins the popular Zero-G series from Ed Stratton, Music of Life's Wild Style breakbeats album, Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples disc, Norman Cook's Starmix CD and The Original Unknown DJs' Break Beats Vol 1 & 2 as part of the sampler's CD library. More obtusely targeted is Coldcut's DJ Food CD - this contains complete tracks which you are actually encouraged to steal and use to your own musical ends.
And there's no sign of the flood of sample CDs abating - Stratton intends to add to the Zero-G series, Gabriel has another disc up his sleeve, Coldcut are about to make some of their eclectic library public on a sample CD and there's talk of other - as yet unidentified -"name" artists eager to contribute. Meanwhile, Harris is confident that there's plenty left for him to do with Beats Breaks & Scratches...
"I remember buying a couple of those at Record Shack in Berwick Street", says Harris of Liebrand's album. "At the time I was DJing at the Camden Palais. And I thought 'What a good idea'. Virtually the whole of that was done on a LinnDrum, so on one side it was really 'Ben Liebrand playing with a LinnDrum' and on the other it was 'Ben Liebrand playing with whatever synth was in the studio' making stab noises and wind noises. I used that album to death - I put it all over the mixes I was doing for Capitol Radio and scratched it to death. Two or three years later I thought 'Why the hell hasn't anyone done another one?'. I'd ruined my copies and you couldn't get it any more, so it seemed the obvious thing to do."
Surrounded by the trappings of a well-equipped MIDI studio, hot nights behind a couple of turntables seem a long way behind Simon Harris. Yet in the course of quizzing him about his CDs and the issue of sample CDs in general he repeatedly refers to the requirements of less wealthy musicians and DJs, and expresses his determination to give value for money. He's not too sure that everybody else does.
Beats Breaks & Scratches Vol 1 appeared in 1987 and contained beats programmed on the hip machines of the day - Roland's TR808, TR909 and TR727 - rather than breakbeats taken from other records. In contrast to the current trend of cramming as many samples onto a single disc as technology will allow, there were just 12 rhythm patterns accompanied by 30 one-shot samples including whistles, vibraslaps, scratches, and sound effects.
"I just built the rhythms on the 909", he explains, "and I borrowed Derek B's - who was then an un-famous Derek B - 808 and I rented a 727. I linked 'em all up together, took a single output into a little disco mixer and recorded straight onto my Tascam 32. Then I edited leader tape in between the tracks. On the b-side I thought I'd stick down a few of the scratches that I had on tape for my remixes. When I did a remix I'd always take with me a reel of tape with my bits and pieces on, and those were my 'bits and pieces' and a few noises from a Casio CZ5000."
Harris claims never to have anticipated doing any further volumes, but the success of the first - and that of the series as a whole - determined that he should.
"We just wanted it to be as cheap as possible to put together", he says. "It didn't cost anything - there were no artists' fees, no producers, no nothing. It started selling, but it didn't sell in huge numbers. To this day the first album has done about 15,000 copies because the sales have never eased off. The second album started off, picked up and stayed at the same sales rate. And the third one...
"In America, a lot of the DJs would take drum machines into their clubs and I thought it would be a good idea to give people those drum machines on a record so that they could mix it in the usual way, but with it already programmed with current rhythms. In a way it was something I'd done for myself, so that I didn't have to take a 909 into the clubs. The basic principle, the reason why the albums have all been so successful, is that they're non-artistic. They're not meant to show me off, they're not meant for people to sit down and listen to and decide whether they liked it or not. It was purely to give people access to technology they couldn't afford or that they couldn't program instantly. Basically I try to make them a useable demonstration of all the technology that you can muster up on the DJ front."
By the time of the second volume, Harris was using a Sequential Studio 440. "The only album that was limited in terms of it all being done with the same drum machines was the first one. All I wanted was an answer to the Ben Liebrand album: a more up to date one with electro rhythms and 808 sounds. Those were the days when not a lot of people knew what an 808 or a 909 were in terms of its sounds. There were just these sounds that appeared on Chicago house records and New York electro records. I moved onto breakbeats because they were the next big thing."
"Simon Harris: I'm trying to give people the tools to be creative; I'm not trying to be creative myself in releasing these albums."
Big they were. And with them they brought the full impact of the possibilities and problems of sampling other artists' material - not merely that of taking the initial sample, but also selling it to other musicians to use. The situation was exacerbated by a flood of bootleg albums containing samples which were hot, but which gave little respect to the copyright laws.
"Americans have been doing that kind of thing for years", comments Norman Cook over the phone from his bathroom. "There was a thing called For DJs Only which gave you acappellas, and there was DJs Greatest Bits which were just pressed as 12" bootlegs. They're all very illegal, that's why people often don't know who the original artist was.
"The worst example was Acappella Anonymous which was a bootleg of acappellas of famous New York garage stuff which was imported in huge amounts to Europe and Italy particularly, whereupon every Italian dance tune for the next year-and-a-half - including 'Ride On Time' by Black Box - came off this one album. If you play it you hear hit after hit. In the Black Box court case they said 'We didn't know who did the original, we just got it off this album called Acappella Anonymous'.'" When the opportunities opened up by sample CDs became another Big Thing, Harris set about transferring the entire Beats Breaks & Scratches catalogue, making his exclusive production library readily available to anyone with a sampler and CD player.
"It was an obvious thing to happen, wasn't it?", he says of sample CDs. "CD is the ultimate manageable medium. It's not like sample discs where you're selecting things from a menu and then loading them into your sampler before you can hear them - you can listen to sounds, decide what you want and load them in. I can see the breakbeat thing still being around for many years to come, but probably in a totally different form. I still intend to be doing Beats Breaks & Scratches in the year 2090. Well, for a long time, anyway. And I hope that Ed Stratton's doing his stuff in many years to come too, because people have a right to buy whichever they want - or both."
"Norman Cook: In the Black Box court case they said 'We didn't know who did the original, we got it off this album called Acappella Anonymous'."
Fair comment, but the issue of copyright hasn't gone away simply because the material is presented in a new format. All parties involved are acutely aware of the fact - if their attitudes differ.
"I was quite respectful of copyright", claims Pascal Gabriel, fresh out of the recording studio. "I had loads more drum loops than were used on the CD. Once I'd compiled it and listened to it I thought I might be on dangerous territory. If a drum loop is used in a record and it's covered with other instruments, it's quite easy to get away with using it, but to actually sell a drum loop that's not yours on a CD that people are going to buy on the back of your name is dodgy. The drum loops you hear on my CD are either from sessions I have done or from records that I've had some involvement with. I guess there are a couple in there that are slightly dodgy but they're the obscure ones."
"My attitude is that my samples came from so many different sources that, in a great many cases, I've got no idea where they came from", comments Stratton - alias Man Machine - from his Hertfordshire studio. "Some of them are off records and some I actually created or are taken from sessions I've engineered over the years. These are usually the best because they're unique - this is their first use.
"It's such a murky, murky area", he continues. "The rules I use are: that samples should be short, that they should be describable as sound effects or non-melodic samples. If there's anything that's come off anybody else's recording, I make sure it's very short or non-melodic - breakbeats mustn't have a bassline, for example.
"Every sample is unique and raises its own questions. A rhythm loop raises the question 'If somebody made a whole track out of what is essentially somebody hitting some drums for one bar - two seconds - is the whole track owned by the person who played that one bar?'. In my opinion, if there's no music, if it's only percussive, then it's really a loop of sound effects. I don't really agree that it's an infringement of copyright. I don't think there's been a case where anybody's been sued over a one-bar or even a two-bar loop that didn't contain any bass or melody - like a vocal sample where the sample is so clear that it's obviously a particular artist.
"I've got a set of vocal samples for Datafile 3, of a guy who imitates James Brown to the point that there isn't really any difference. You'd have to use pretty sophisticated equipment to analyse the sounds before you could tell who it was. But if someone's voice gets used more than anyone else's then they also get the benefit of being raised in the public eye. This is why, when it does happen, the person doesn't usually mind too much. Even Lolleata Holloway (the sampled artist in 'Ride on Time'), who was so upset about it, still did quite well out of it in the end."
"Pascal Gabriel: If a drum loop is used in a record, it's quite easy to get away with, but to actually sell a drum loop that's not yours..."
Stratton's judgement is largely based on his experiences as part of house act Jack 'n Chill: "For the sample we used on 'Beatin the Heat', which I sampled from For a Few Dollars More, we did a deal with Ennio Morricone's publisher before releasing the track. He got 5% of the whole of the publishing for that one little sample - that's totally fair.
"I think you just have to use a bit of discretion and think how you'd feel if it was you being sampled. I've based my criteria on everything that's gone before; Simon Harris has been selling his stuff for years, and some of that's come off records, so I can do the same. In my opinion his stuff is much more dodgy than mine. It's become an instinct with me now - in the day of Jack 'n Chill there were a lot of things we'd have liked to use but we didn't dare. Looking at it now, I think we'd have got away with it. We were much more conservative then but over the years I've gradually learnt what's acceptable and what's not."
Coldcut's Matt Black explains their position: "We've always said we're against wholesale biting of substantial pieces - a whole chorus or even a few words if they are extremely distinctive. You can't steal the heart out of something and make that your own. Our technique has always been to use small bits and make a mosaic - you can recognise some of the elements, that's part of the fun, but no one element is necessarily dominant.
"It's a very harsh thing and I can see both sides of it. Noise is free, but music isn't necessarily free. If I write a song and you steal my song, you've stolen my ideas and that isn't right. If I do a sample tune and you copy it exactly, that's not right either. But if I use a small piece of something, I've paid for the record and in a way I feel I'm entitled to use that raw piece.
"On the one hand you can say an artist and a record company paid for this to be recorded and you are stealing that work from them. The other side of it is that in the States now you have to get pieces cleared and you usually have to do a publishing deal as well. And I think, for large piece's, that is fair. But artists shouldn't look down on samplers because as George Clinton observed, 'De La Soul pay real well' (see interview in this issue). He's probably seen more money from his work being used by De La Soul and other people sampling P-funk than he himself has generated in the last ten years. It would be silly for an artist to say nobody can sample anything I do, but they do have a right to get involved if you get too greedy. Music's got to grow; artists of whatever generation realise that when they look back. As James Brown said 'Everyone's got to make a living..
"The whole copyright thing on the Beats Breaks & Scratches albums is dodgy territory", concedes Harris. "A lot of people know that where the samples have come from is old records that aren't necessarily ever going to sell again. I believe that if you can make a breakbeat from an obscure record famous, then it's up to the original record company to re-issue the original record - which will then sell bucketloads more than the Beats Breaks & Scratches album because it's primarily aimed at DJs. They're not aimed at the general public, so people aren't going to buy them instead of the original. None of my albums is going to chart in a million years.
"The one break I've never used - out of respect - is the No. 1 breakbeat of all time, 'Funky Drummer'. That is the one record that sells because of the breakbeat. People bought the James Brown In the Jungle Groove album because it had the 'Funky Drummer (Bonus Beats Reprise)' edited by Danny Krivit.
"Another thing is, when I make an album I grab something - a CD or an album or whatever - take the break and put it down without really working out where the hell I've got it from. I'm not an expert on music - Norman Cook is an expert, he can tell you exactly where a breakbeat comes from, who produced it, who recorded it... With me, I'll release a load of breakbeats on an album and I don't know where the hell they came from. All I know is when it's a good break and when it works technically - it must loop properly and stay in time."
"Matt Black: It would be silly for an artist to say nobody can sample anything I do, but they do have a right to get involved if you get too greedy."
The other side of the sampling coin is when the samplers become the sampled; the biters become the bitten.
"There was one time that it was upsetting for me", admits Harris. "I don't think any of us have really got any right to say 'You mustn't take this', because everybody's guilty of it now, there's no-one who doesn't sample. Everybody at some point goes into a studio and finds an odd snare from a Queen record or a James Brown record and decides it's going to work on their track. Everybody's done it. Pete Waterman said 'I'm not going to sample anything; all samplers are bastards! Everybody should play guitars and pianos.'. And what's he done? He's released 'Get Ready For This', by 2 Unlimited, which uses a sample off of my Derek B record, 'Yeah, Yeah' from Good Groove. Yet he's the one who stands up and says... So everybody does it. I've got great respect for Pete Waterman, but nobody should stand up and say 'You mustn't sample'. I think that the most important thing is that people do it in a creative way. It's no good if you just go and make a copy of something based on samples from the original. I'm trying to give people the tools to be creative; I'm not trying to be creative myself in releasing these albums. If I can help other people be creative, that's great. That's all I'm trying to do. I'm not precious at all about breakbeats now because I know everybody's gonna use them in a different way. I may use a break in one way but I know somebody else will use it in a far different way."
"I don't believe that anybody who puts together one of these CDs doesn't nick half of it off records anyway", Cook contends, "And thieves can't be worried about being thieved off. It's like musicians who say 'Home taping is killing music' - if you go round their house I bet you'll find they've got loads of other peoples' albums taped. There can't be two standards for it."
The loss of control effected by making your sample library "public" itself raises questions. Firstly, you have to consider a sample CD selling just one copy because it's been sampled by the remaining potential purchasers.
"It's a fact of life", comments Cook. "It's a risk you have to take."
Alternatively, what if someone other than the originator of a sample CD scores a chart hit with a previously unused sample gleaned from a sample disc?
Coldcut's Matt Black replies: "Obviously we'd feel a little bit gutted. But we've always said speed is of the essence, and if you're hot and move fast, then good luck."
Sample CDs raise many other questions, concerning such considerations as the exclusivity of personal sample libraries, the pre-selection of your samples by other parties, the technical aspects of compiling a sample CD and the future of the medium in terms of both music and technology. These issues will be addressed in next month's Music Technology.